Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

The 5 Most Blatant Pinkwashing Cause Marketing Schemes

By Leon Kaye

It is October: National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is a time for organizations, including the National Breast Cancer Foundation and the American Cancer Society, to raise awareness about a disease that affects almost 250,000 women in the U.S. each year and will kill approximately 40,000 of them.

It is also an important fundraising time for Susan G. Komen Foundation -- which, despite what the name of its annual “Race for the Cure” implies, only spends 20 percent of its funds on research and 37 percent on “education.” All totaled, the organization spends more money on administration than it does on treatment. In recent years, Komen garnered plenty of criticism for its excessive executive pay and its penchant to put politics ahead of purpose on issues involving Planned Parenthood and stem cell research.

Meanwhile, Komen is notorious for transforming the pink ribbon into a monetizing machine that has enriched corporations while making plenty of women resentful that their very personal and often lonely pain is leveraged to garner companies' positive press. Despite the annual outcry, companies continue to collect publicity, and revenues, on a bevy of cause marketing promotions that range from airline miles promotions to credit cards.

In fairness to Komen, other breast cancer charities are in on the act as well, which generates some funds for these charities. But as a 2009 University of Michigan study on cause marketing suggests, the revenues gained from such promotions often translate into even more profits as consumers “feel good” about patronizing a company that is trying to prove it cares.

So, what are some of the most garish pink ribbon-inspired cause marketing campaigns in recent memory? Here are five; readers are encouraged to add their ideas in the comment section at the end of this article.

1. Sabre pepper spray

Never mind the fact that crime has been on a downward trajectory for over two decades. Sabre has decided to prey on white people’s fear of dark alleys at night with its promotion of key ring pepper sprays (as shown above) and other products that benefit the National Breast Cancer Foundation. “Shop the pink models below to empower yourself and the women in your life!” exhorts the company.

2. Pink fried chicken

Eat a breast to save a breast, as ABC News asked several years ago?

KFC’s Buckets for Charity fomented plenty of backlash when Komen partnered with Yum! Brands in 2010. Even worse than this ill-thought campaign were the mealy-mouthed responses KFC executives offered when defending this alliance.

Perhaps that is why the pink buckets of chicken are not mentioned anywhere on Komen’s or KFC’s websites, and the Buckets for the Cure Site has long gone extinct.

Incidentally, medical professionals suggest excessive fat and processed foods should be prevented in order to curb the risk of breast cancer.

3. Pink fracking drill bits

The energy services firm Baker Hughes generated everything from eye-rolls to outrage with its announcement that donations to Komen were paired with painting 1,000 fracking drill bits pink.

The NGO Breast Cancer Action opposes fracking because the risky chemicals used in this process could expose people to endocrine disruptors and carcinogens linked to breast cancer. Despite the wide public scorn, the company still showcases this public relations stunt on its website.

4. Pink your drink

Brown Forman, parent company behind the French raspberry liqueur Chambord, invited consumers to “Party with a Cause” by having cupcakes and booze parties.

Not that there can be many parties: This year, the company says it will donate $5 for every attendee of such a party, but it has capped that donation at $10,000. The American Cancer Society advises women to minimize their alcohol consumption to one drink per day to reduce the risk of contracting this disease.

5. Test-drive cars to raise awareness

Over the years, automakers including BMW and Ford Motor Co. have encouraged consumers to test-drive their cars with a financial amount per mile driven going to charities including Komen.

That sounds noble, but the problem is the excessive driving – not to mention the fact that the emission of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have been linked to an increase in breast cancer risk. The American Cancer society advises women to reduce their exposure to automobile exhaust as much as possible, including those from diesel cars.

Image credits: 1) Sabre 2) KFC 3) Baker Hughes 4) Chambourd 5) Bill McChesny/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye